November By-elections: Looking Back

What is the first thing that comes into your head when you think of the Liberal Democrats? Before 2010 it might have been idealism or something to do with wearing sandals. In the first year of coalition, betrayal was a word commonly used, especially after the tuition fee disaster. Now it is more likely to be lost, or floundering. By elections in Croydon North, Middlesbrough and Rotherham at the end of November indicated poor support for the Lib Dems, particularly in Croydon North and Rotherham where the candidates both lost their deposits and attracted less votes than UKIP. But are the Lib Dems really on the brink of disaster, or are these results simply part of the electoral cycle and a symptom of poor engagement with our democratic system?

I suppose before drawing any hasty conclusions from the results, we ought to look at what actually happened in each by-election. The answer to that really seems to be not an awful lot! Granted, by-elections involve local and not national campaigns and are therefore less likely to get much media coverage, but the real lack of interest showed at Westminster towards these campaigns is clearly reflected in the disappointing results. Rotherham, was in fact the only seat with any kind of national coverage, largely because of the UKIP foster parent story which broke the previous week. The choice of date further indicates how little importance was assigned to these elections by Westminster: the Winter months are commonly held to be the hardest in which to get any kind of turn out for an election. The fact that only 2 weeks previously there had been the highly criticised PCC elections brings this into even sharper relief: not only in that the elections were not held the same day, but that these by-elections were seen as an after thought to even the most sidelined local elections in history (who can forget the images of the polling station in Newport where there was 0% turnout?).

So if these elections were largely ignored by the main parties, can this explain to some extent the relative success of UKIP? UKIP is certainly not sitting back on its laurels at the moment: instead Nigel Farage is taking over opportunity, ever election no matter how small, to get his message out and to attempt to connect to voters. This, presumably, is the advantage of not being one of the main parties in Westminster (and I’m sorry Mr Farage, but you still aren’t no matter what you try and claim). As the the Conservatives, Lib Dem and Labour leaders all deal with the major (and more trivial) issues that arise daily in being on the front bench, there is much less time to get out campaigning in every local election – however important. Once upon a time it was a different story for the Lib Dems, when they too could take advantage of the opportunities that not being in government provides. Another advantage this provides, is being seen as a protest vote against a government which, inevitably no matter what party it is formed from, will not be achieving everything promised in its election manifesto as fast as voters want it to. General Elections involve promises of hope and change; party manifestos setting out a new way forward. By-elections don’t offer anything new to government, and in a system where it is hard to differentiate voting for a local MP from supporting the executive, protest votes are inevitable. That this isn’t the real purpose of voting for your local representative to parliament, just demonstrates a flaw in our electoral system – but discussion of the need to complete separation of powers and have an entirely independent executive is best kept for another article.

Honestly, what I can’t understand is why the headline at the time wasn’t screaming about the low turnout, rather than focussing on UKIP v Lib Dem votes. Turnout was 33.63% in Rotherham, 26.4% in Croydon and 25.91% in Middlesbrough. That means that between two thirds and three quarters of potential voters either didn’t know about the election or for whatever reason chose not to take part in the democratic process. In real numbers this translates to roughly 42,000, 68,500 and 48,200 voters in each constituency respectively who didn’t vote. Over 150,000 people choosing not to vote really ought to be cause for concern. If we accept that these weren’t high profile elections, it is possible that there were people simply not aware of it taking place: one cause for concern. If we also accept that by elections tend to induce protest voting, then surely the 150,000 people not voting at all, is far more worrying than the 8000 or so people who voted for UKIP, or the fact that only 3000 people voted for the Lib Dems. This demonstrates that more than being annoyed with the current Coalition government, the public are fed up with government, parliament and politics in general. This then, isn’t just a problem for the Liberal Democrats, despite accusations of “floundering”, but for all parties: and one that desperately needs to be addressed.

There is a joke where the first person asks another “are you ignorant or just apathetic?” to which the second replies “I don’t know and I don’t care”. This is fits rather nicely into the problem we are currently facing: we have to ask whether the low turn out was due to ignorance or apathy, however it is important that we both know and care about the answer. We began by asking whether the Liberal Democrats are on the brink of disaster or whether the results were a part of a larger problem: by now it should be clear that at least in the case of these elections, the latter is the case not the former. With the Christmas break approaching, perhaps our MPs and leaders ought to be planning their New Year resolutions: the first I would suggest must be to reengage with the public, not only to draw support back from right wing groups but to connect with ever potential voter in the population to ensure that the trend towards political apathy is reversed. Unless more by-elections are called, the next set of local elections will be May 2nd – and this will be the real test, both to see how the Liberal Democrats are faring and to monitor general political engagement. A lot can change between now and then – we just have to hope lessons are learnt and its for the better.